The oysters — cooled and cleansed in the waters of the coast, plucked from a bed and driven in a truck until shucked with a knife and placed upon a plate of crushed ice — have a story to tell.
That story is one of countless others weaving together the food landscape of North Carolina.
The state of that food landscape and how it came into its present high-profile moment is the subject of Marcie Cohen Ferris’ latest book, “Edible North Carolina: A Journey across a State of Flavor.” The book’s associate editor was K.C. Hysmith, with photos by Baxter Miller and Ryan Stancil.
Ferris’ book annotates this moment in North Carolina food, speaking in between the glitz and stare of the nation’s food world, now fixed on the state following major wins at last month’s James Beard Awards.
“Edible North Carolina” is a follow up of sorts to Ferris’ 2016 book, “The Edible South.” But the format has changed, as has Ferris’ focus, delving into the foodways of North Carolina and using many voices from across the state to tell its story.
“Food is a social history,” Ferris said. “It helps us understand our own community and global experiences. It’s a lens into our lives.”
Essays and recipes
“Edible North Carolina” includes essays by recent James Beard Best Chef Southeast winner Ricky Moore, legendary chef of Crook’s Corner Bill Smith, Raleigh chef Cheetie Kumar and Appalachian cookbook author Ronni Lundy, among many other luminaries of the state’s food and media scene.
Each essay is paired with a recipe, like grilled pork neck from Andrea Reusing and strawberry pie from Charlotte’s Keia Mastrianni.
“Many voices had to be involved to tell a complete story,” Ferris said. “It needed to be a story about the contemporary food landscape.”
That landscape includes how contemporary pitmasters make the the economics of whole hog barbecue work in a modern restaurant, featured in an essay by former News & Observer food writer Andrea Weigl. Or Kumar’s story of the pandemic’s lasting impact on restaurants and food systems.
“It seems like a critical moment,” Ferris said. “And there are so many factors that contribute to that.”
One is geography, Ferris said, a temperate climate and a long coastline, rich farmland and mountains for foraging. Other are cultural, like Black farmland loss, covered in an essay by Shorlette Ammons, and the influence of Latinos on Southern food, covered in an essay by Sandra Gutierrez.
“What ‘Edible North Carolina’ explores are national issues, the same successes and problems in the rest of the country, through a lens on one state,” Ferris said.
American Food Studies
The roots of “Edible North Carolina” began in Ferris’ American Food Studies class. The retired UNC-Chapel Hill professor expects some students entered her class imagining an uncomplicated romp through whole hog barbecue and fried chicken.
“I think some were thinking they would come in and learn about sweet potatoes and barbecue and flattened ideas of Southern cuisine,” Ferris said. “And instead we talked about capitalism and slavery and the foundations of the economic system in the country and thinking about why exactly we’re eating black-eyed peas and cornbread.”
There are foodways and food systems, one representing tradition and the other reflecting the way a modern society gets a chicken from a farm to a roasting pan, or a sweet potato from the dirt to a menu.
Ferris sees today’s food systems as more fragile than ever, vulnerable to hurricanes and pandemics, like when North Carolina saw hundreds lined up in cars hoping to buy discounted chicken from the back of a truck.
“I hope people have a long memory,” Ferris said. “Food systems really do fail. When we have a large national concentration, when they fail they really fall apart, like the beginning of the pandemic. I hope people recognize the activism and choice they make by being knowledgeable about their plate.”
A panel of Edible North Carolina essayists will be held at Raleigh’s Quail Ridge Books on July 14 at 7 p.m., featuring Ferris, with Sandra Gutierrez, Cheetie Kumar and Andrea Weigl.
This story was originally published July 13, 2022 8:00 AM.